March 10, 2013 6:42 pm

Moocs are no panacea for universities

Open online courses are unlikely to bring rapid change, says Karan Khemka

Since the first university opened in Bologna in 1088, the business of higher education has changed remarkably little. It is one of the few sectors where being older and more traditional is considered better. That is why there is so much excitement that “massive open online courses” (Moocs) might be able to revolutionise this industry. But this hope is misplaced.

In the past 18 months, dozens of institutions, including Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, have signed up to provide free online courses to anyone who wants them. Each can enrol hundreds of thousands of students. In the first week that its six courses were available, the University of Edinburgh enrolled nearly 300,000 students. Coursera, a leading platform, last month announced 90 new courses, offered in Mandarin, Spanish and other languages.

Higher education certainly needs a shake-up. In the US, it costs up to $100 per student to deliver an hour of instruction. In emerging markets, the sector has not grown to match booming demand; at current growth rates, India will have more adults without a university education in 2020 than today.

Just as MP3 players upset the music industry, some say online teaching will democratise higher education. Yet Moocs are unlikely to deliver immediate sweeping change.

Higher education is fundamentally different from online music. With a downloaded song, customers can immediately enjoy their purchase; the value of a university education is determined by the job it secures later. In the short term, Moocs cannot compete with traditional universities until they show employers they add the same value to students as traditional courses.

Moreover, a university education is a once-in-a-lifetime purchase; most students cannot afford to repeat their degree if the first one does not secure them a job. Given this, young adults would not risk replacing a traditional degree with a Mooc.

Furthermore, Moocs will struggle to meet the needs of students in emerging markets. Our surveys in China, India, the Middle East and other emerging markets show the primary driver of tertiary enrolment is the desire to secure employment. Employers in emerging markets do not value online degrees as highly as those in developed markets. Distance courses are often taken to make the degree holder more marriageable as opposed to more employable.

Nonetheless, online courses are seen as potentially meeting the demands of students clamouring for western-branded degrees in emerging markets. It is true that transnational education is booming, with more than 730,000 students from India, China and southeast Asia studying at universities in the west. But one of the main reasons they do this is to live and work there. In Dubai’s education cities, economic free zones that host foreign-branch campuses, western universities that have succeeded are those that offer a transfer option to home campuses. Attending a western university online will not meet this requirement of the market.

While Moocs are unlikely to prove a silver bullet for students or universities, combining their efficiency and scalability with the credibility of a traditional university education is compelling for both.

For example, universities could use Mooc courseware to lower the cost of instruction and make better use of property. More learning would happen outside the classroom, alleviating operational and capital costs. Moocs could also make higher education more accessible to working students with limited flexibility and financial resources. Still more innovative, they could provide a more standardised way of measuring attainment across institutions. A talented student at one of America’s 1,000 or so community colleges could compete and excel in a course with Ivy League students, bringing more egalitarianism and meritocracy to a prestige-driven market.

I once heard the frenzy around the dotcom boom described as the froth on a cappuccino. But once the froth dissipates, you have a steaming hot coffee underneath. Once the frenzy around Moocs dissipates, they will have an impact on the delivery of higher education – but through incremental change rather than massive disruption.

The writer is partner and co-head of the education practice at The Parthenon Group

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